Andrew Klavan — a conservative novelist, podcast host and political commentator — spoke Tuesday night about the role of Judeo-Christian values in Western civilization in a controversial talk titled, “Yes, America is a Judeo-Christian Nation.”
The event, hosted by Stanford College Republicans (SCR), has raised significant tensions within the Stanford student body and prompted a pre-emptive response from University administrators. On Monday, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole and Dean for Religious Life Tiffany Steinwert released a statement criticizing Klavan, who they said has previously “sought to promote Judeo-Christian values in part by fostering anti-Muslim sentiment … equating Islam with violence and barbarism.”
Brubaker-Cole and Steinwert also criticized the advertising tactics for the event, which involved flyers distributed around the Markaz — Stanford’s Muslim community center — in what they criticized as “an evidently deliberate attempt to disturb and disrespect our Muslim community.”
The Markaz incident closely followed a controversy last week wherein a member of SCR responded to the invitation of Jewish political cartoonist Eli Valley to campus by posting anti-Semitic cartoons from Nazi propaganda outlet Der Stürmer. The flyers were put up — reportedly without consulting SCR leadership — in response to Valley’s own cartoons, which some accused of employing anti-Semitic tropes.
In his event on Friday, Valley criticized the use of “Judeo-Christian” in the title of Klavan’s talk as “a bullshit term” used “partly to erase Jews.”
In a third flyering incident, attendees of the Klavan event arrived to find the doors of Braun Auditorium chained shut and papered over with satirical flyers criticizing SCR and Klavan. Behind the barricades were several cups of juice. Attendees waited for 20 minutes to enter the auditorium before SCR members reopened the doors and removed the juice.
Comments on free speech
Before delivering his prepared remarks, Klavan addressed the controversy surrounding his visit, specifically criticizing administrators Brubaker-Cole and Steinwert, who were both in attendance, along with Associate Dean for Religious Life Sughra Ahmed.
“Normally people call me names all the time, and normally I don’t respond because they don’t know what they’re talking about or who I am, but when somebody in the administration of a college calls you a bigot I think that deserves a response, and my response is basically, ‘Screw you,’” Klavan said. “The fact that anybody would give a hair on a rat’s ass what these two think is deeply disturbing.”
Brubaker-Cole and Steinwert declined to respond.
Klavan emphasized the importance of free speech, maintaining that, “There is nothing unacceptable or hateful about what [he has] to say.”
“You are perfectly capable of listening to me talk without exploding, without dying, without losing your minds and … presenting your objections or your disagreements and allowing me to respond,” he continued.
Klavan, who converted to Christianity from secular Judaism at age 50, also responded to Brubaker-Cole and Steinwert’s accusations that he has fostered “anti-Muslim sentiment.”
“I have criticized and made fun of Islam, Catholicism, Buddhism, Judaism and my own religion probably most of all: Episcopalianism,” Klavan said. “Religions are systems of ideas … If you cannot debate and mock and criticize and talk about ideas, why do you need a university in the first place?”
“A Judeo-Christian nation”
“The foundation of [a] society is like the foundation of a person,” Klavan said. “It is what is woven into you that you cannot get away from. Even if you don’t agree with it, it is still part of you. Christianity is woven into this society.”
Klavan highlighted several key American values that he believes are rooted in Christianity.
“The Christian God is a person and man is created in God’s image; therefore people are individuals with a conscience,” Klavan said.
Klavan claims that these ideas lead to the notion of free will and natural law.
“Christians believed in an all-good God, yet they could see that people did terrible things,” Klavan said. “Strong people dominated, hurt the weak. They thought, ‘God must want us to be free, to have free will.’”
According to Klavan, every civilization has basic ideas that cannot be proven but are simply accepted as true. In Western civilization, for instance, the study of natural law led to the ideas espoused by the American Founding Fathers, he said, citing the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as shared values between the Christian God and the U.S. Constitution.
Klavan also said that America’s fear of tyrannical government is rooted in the Christian doctrine of original sin. This inability to trust people not to abuse power, he argued, comes from this doctrine and has developed in Christian thought over the past two millennia.
He also discussed his views on multiculturalism, which he said is an invention of the West. He expressed his belief in the idea of coexistence but pushed back against the idea that multiculturalism implies all cultures are equal.
“Nobody thinks the culture of the [American] South, where they held black people as slaves, was just as good as places [where] they did not hold black people as slaves,” he said.
Klavan pointed to multiculturalism’s roots in ancient Rome as well as in Biblical passages that deny distinctions based on gender, race or class, affirming his support for the notion due to his appreciation of Western values.
He pointed to America as an example of his view of multiculturalism.
“America is the least racist country on Earth,” Klavan said. “Nobody comes close to second. Look at the pictures of cities in America and look at the pictures of cities in China. Look at the difference in what the left calls diversity and what I call different-colored people. All of that comes from our Christian and Classical roots.”
He emphasized the role of Christian values in the abolitionist movement, as well as Western society’s legal acceptance of same-sex relationships.
Klavan ended his remarks by asserting that Christian values support the free expression of ideas.
“There is no idea too hateful to express, no idea too woke, to be ridiculed out of society … If you do it with Christian love, there is no problem that cannot be transformed, because we are a Judeo-Christian society.”
The lecture raised several questions from the audience.
Attendees asked Klavan for his thoughts on the primary differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In response, Klavan cited a perceived difference in the relationship between adherents of these faiths and God. Unlike Jews, he said, Christians were freed from the obligations of Old Testament law and view their relationship with God as being more of a “friend” than a “servant.”
In response to a question about whether he believes Islam could be “transformed” in a way similar to Christianity, Klavan stated his belief that Christian values are “true” and that, accordingly, could be arrived at through self-evident perception from the “human heart” and that “religions can be rewritten by the heart.”
“Christianity cannot be forced, it can only be chosen,” Klavan said in response to another question, adding that problems in the tradition arose when Christians attempted to force their faith on others. “A secular world is necessary for Christianity,” he said of the need for space for free choice, “but not an anti-Christian world.”
Sean Hackett ’22, a student who attended the event, said that the event came “from a Christian angle” and assumed an objective moral truth. He criticized Klavan for not addressing moral relativism.
Sarah Thomas ’19, who also attended, said she appreciated Klavan’s emphasis on natural law, which she said is typically not emphasized by Stanford professors.
“In a mere one-hour talk tonight, Andrew Klavan showed that the moral intuitions we all experience come from the natural law,” Thomas said. “Indeed, the articulations of natural law found in the Bible, [Thomas] Aquinas and early modern Protestant thought greatly influenced natural rights and the American founding … They give us a unique lens for thinking about our heritage as a nation, but also our place in the cosmos.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Brubaker-Cole and Steinwert declined to respond to Klavan’s statements about them.
Contact Sophie Regan at sregan20 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Riley DeHaan at rdehaan ‘at’ stanford.edu.